Relinquishing the Internal Agony.
Somewhere around today, three years ago, I quit smoking. As with alcohol, I started smoking late in life, by comparison with most smokers. I was a junior in college before I smoked regularly. I started by smoking a pipe, and then filterless turkish cigarettes, and cigars. But like most addicts, I soon descended to simple, mass-produced cigarettes. I was a smoker of Winston Lights. I bought vaguely into the “no additive” campaign, hoping that maybe they were a tiny bit less awful for me than cigarettes with “additives”. This is nonsense, of course.
I smoked for about 15 years, from the time I was 20 to the time I was 35. Although, I did once quit for about a year, year and a half, when I was 26. I started playing a lot of soccer, had a really great girlfriend, lost some weight and generally felt pretty good about myself for a year. None of it lasted. I don’t remember why I began smoking again. It doesn’t really matter. When I went to rehab for alcohol, I made a half-hearted attempt to quit smoking at the same time, using Chantix. But all the other inmates smoked. And I wasn’t devoted to it. All I wanted was to be free from alcohol. I wasn’t ready for anything more. I was so defeated by liquor that any additional burden was too much.
So it would be a year and a half after I quit drinking before I quit smoking. And I no longer remember for certain the date I quit smoking. It was the 17th or the 18th, or maybe the 19th of August, 2009. I bought some Nicorette. I had tried and failed a couple of times the previous months. I decided that I would allow myself to smoke a cigarette or two in the following days if it was too hard. And I did. I smoked one cigarette on my way home from work that first day. That was my last.
I didn’t tell my wife or step-son I was quitting. They were not supportive. I mean, obviously, they liked the idea of me no longer smoking. My wife had quit the previous year. But they were dismissive and incredulous. I was told I couldn’t do it, whenever I talked about it. Then I was excoriated for not having already done it. Much as she had once said about alcohol, my wife accused me of “choosing cigarettes over her.” I understand where that comes from in her. I get that sensation, that thought process. But it was wrong, and it hurt. I couldn’t understand why they’d tell me I couldn’t quit, when she had, and I’d already quit alcohol. It felt mean-spirited.
Obviously, my experience in quitting cigarettes was greatly different from my experience quitting alcohol. Nicotine isn’t mind altering in the same way as alcohol. It doesn’t cause cognitive and motor impairment the way inebriation does. But it is a powerfully psycho-active drug. I don’t know the science. I bet that BabyAttachMode or Scicurious or Drugmonkey does. I know that going without nicotine made me angry. Really, furiously angry, and irritable, and short-tempered. So I alleviated that, some, and the cravings, some, with the Nicorette. Which helped. I will not endorse their product, of course, I don’t know if I might have succeeded in other ways. But I did use it, and I am no longer a smoker.
So, quitting smoking was, for me, fundamentally different from quitting alcohol. I did not have the ability to attenuate my use of alcohol. When I tried, I failed, spectacularly, over and over again. Because as soon as I put any alcohol in my body, I lose the ability to regulate how much more I consume. This wasn’t true of cigarettes. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those people who can have one cigarette, once in a while, and have that be the extent of it. I know people like that. I hate those people. You know who you are.
But I was done with cigarettes. I really wanted to be healthy. I was so exhausted with myself. Even a year and a half into sobriety. I had never had a sweet tooth as a kid, or a young adult. But when I quit drinking, it arose within me, malevolent. And so there I was, sober, but mildly obese, eating huge amounts of candy and cake to satisfy these unbidden sugar cravings, and smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. I wasn’t making the progress in my life that I felt I truly needed to make.
I was still killing myself.
This is what most of my mental health issues come down to. At the core of me, there is thing that does not want to live. A thing that loves pain more than comfort. An ouroboros, in persistent, cannibal rage. The thing I drank to slake. The thing I bled to feed. The thing that breathed the smoke from my lungs. I take strange pleasure in ruining myself.
Giving up addictions is in some way the process of starving that beast into submission. To do that, I had to learn to look at life as thing worth having. I needed to see contribution as meaningful. Relationships as nourishing. I needed to learn to value health. Learning those things, embracing them, is astonishingly painful. Because to do it, I had to learn why I was the way I am. All the reasons that pain and hate and shame and fear and rootlessness satisfied me in ways that comfort and companionship and love and accomplishment and connection didn’t. I had to face the long gauntlet of my past.
Caring about life is a conscious effort for me. I work at it. Being willing to embrace friendship and sociality is difficult. But I have decided that I don’t want to be lonely. I want to experience life the way I think so many of my fellows do: by working for good things. To be useful and happy. And to do that, I have to be willing to let go of my precious, precious agony. The pain that drove me. The pain that I loved. The pain that I still love.